‘Artificial Organism’ Created By Scientists Using Additional DNA

By Matthew Mientka on May 8, 2014 9:36 AM EDT

Researchers say they've created an
Researchers say they've created an "artificial organism" by adding newly created DNA base pairs to a circular stretch of DNA. Photo courtesy of Nathan Reading, CC BY 2.0.

Science has proven a new way of storing information on the molecular level by creating an “artificial organism” whose DNA comprises the usual two base pairs plus something unseen in nature.

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The new microorganism — the first to stably reproduce artificial DNA — not only carries implications for the development of nanotechnology but the possibility of engineering bizarre new “alien” life forms on earth. Scientists at The Scripps Research Institute reported Wednesday in the journal Nature they had created a bacterium with two extra base pairs of DNA, which successfully replicated the artificial DNA more or less normally,

“Life on earth in all its diversity is encoded by only two pairs of DNA bases, A-T and C-G, and what we've made is an organism that stably contains those two plus a third, unnatural pair of bases," lead researcher Floyd E. Romesberg, said in a press statement. "This shows that other solutions to storing information are possible and, of course, takes us closer to an expanded-DNA biology that will have many exciting applications — from new medicines to new kinds of nanotechnology."

In the study, Romesberg and his colleagues proved the bacterium’s new DNA would replicate along with the natural nucleoside base-pairs, adenine-thymine and cytosine-guanine. Everything worked seamlessly as the new bases then successfully aligned alongside the natural ones. Under the microscope, they zipped and unzipped — replicating and then transcribing to RNA at the touch of polymerase enzymes. And all the while, the new DNA bases avoided attack from natural mechanisms by which the body repairs its own DNA.

To accomplish this feat, the team created a plasmid, a circular stretch of DNA which they then inserted into cells of the bacterium E. coli. That DNA contained the natural base pairs as well as a creation from Romesberg’s lab: the molecules d55ICS and dNaM. Researcher Dennis A Malyshev says the great breakthrough came with their success with using a species of microalgae to transport needed nucleoside triphosphates into the bacteria cells.

"That was a big breakthrough for us—an enabling breakthrough," Malyshev said in the statement. "When we stopped the flow of the unnatural triphosphate building blocks into the cells, the replacement of d5SICS–dNaM with natural base pairs was very nicely correlated with the cell replication itself—there didn't seem to be other factors excising the unnatural base pairs from the DNA.

The researchers say the next challenge is to get the new DNA working in the more complex environment of a living cell.

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